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This handout image provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) on May 16, 2020, shows WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attending a virtual press conference after signing with International Olympic Committee (IOC) a cooperation agreement on promoting healthy society through sport and on contributing to the prevention of non-communicable diseases on May 16, 2020 at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. - Olympic chief Thomas Bach called for vigilance and patience in preparations for the Tokyo Summer Games, postponed a year until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Christopher Black / World Health Organization / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / World Health Organization / Christopher Black" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

WHO: Political tensions threaten to derail World Health Assembly

Leaders are set to evaluate a global response, access to healthcare, and ways to combat hardship resulting from the COVID-19 crisis. But political rivalries could prevent best-practice responses from being considered.

The European Union is to call for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the global response to coronavirus, during the World Health Organization’s (WHO) first-ever virtual assembly on Monday afternoon.  

WHO chief Tedros Adhanon Ghebreysus said the meeting would be “one of the most important since we were founded in 1948,” as the health agency has garnered widespread attention over its handling of the pandemic which has infected more than 4.7 million people and killed over 315,000. 

Several health ministers, diplomats and heads of state, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are expected to attend the two-day conference, which is due to begin at noon (10 a.m. UTC). Merkel is also expected to deliver a video message when the conference begins. 

What’s on the agenda

key outline of a proposed COVID-19 response, backed by 122 countries including the European Union member states, the UK, Russia and Canada, calls for WHO members to address the needs of vulnerable populations faced with the pandemic and its subsequent effects, global access to sufficient healthcare, adherence to international law and humanitarian standards, and the needs of frontline healthcare workers.

The paper urges the implementation of national action plans that utilize “time-bound, age- and disability-sensitive and gender-responsive measures across government sectors” and ensure “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, paying particular attention to the needs of people in vulnerable situations.”

The countries will also address how to take steps to protect people from financial hardship, and prevent “insecurity, violence, discrimination, stigmatization and marginalization.” Additionally, members will discuss the impacts of limitations on freedom of movement, access to information and safe testing.

The EU has drafted a resolution calling for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the collective global response.

The dispute over Taiwan

Taiwan’s status as an observer of the assembly will also be on Monday’s conference agenda. Taiwan was invited to attend the assembly as an observer for several years, until 2016, when President Tsai Ing-wen stepped into her role. Tsai refuses to recognize the concept that Taiwan is part of China, and the UN does not recognize Taiwan as a member state. 

However, Taiwan was one of the first countries to implement serious measures to combat the virus, with its very early response resulting in just 440 reported cases and a death toll of seven. Critics say that had the WHO included Taiwan’s recommendations in its own response, the organization could have more rapidly curbed the spread of the virus. 

Daniel Lu, a Taiwanese former delegate to the World Health Assembly, told DW that politics should not hamper efforts to tackle public health issues. 

“We need to look beyond the politics,” he said. “Health is more important than anything else. We need to look at health as a fundamental human right. It should be considered above political issues.”

Nearly 15 countries, including Belize, Guatemala, the Marshall Islands and Honduras have called on Tedros to include Taiwan as a participant. Member states could vote on the island nation’s inclusion. However, it is unlikely that Beijing, which holds a deciding vote in the measure, will vote in favor of Taiwan. Additionally, Taiwan has said that it will wait until later in the year, when meetings can be longer and the virus is better contained, to press for its participation in the assembly. 

International pressure and strained relations

While the WHO is the primary organization coordinating the global response to the virus outbreak, the group has been met with international criticism and has found itself at the center of tense global relations. In April, the United States froze funding to the WHO, for what US President Donald Trump called “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of coronavirus.” 

Trump argued that the organization had been complicit in China’s alleged misreporting of virus cases, and was too slow to investigate the outbreak. The organization has faced budget cuts in recent years, however, the US suspension of funding has dealt the biggest blow to the WHO, as the US was its biggest single donor, contributing almost a fifth of its total budget. 

Trump also threatened to “cut off the whole relationship” with China, in an interview with Fox News on Thursday. The rocky relationship between the two global powers could prove to complicate efforts to implement a coordinated global response. 

What is the World Health Assembly?

The World Health Assembly is the decision-making body of WHO. It is attended by delegations from all WHO member states and focuses on a specific health agenda prepared by the executive board. The main functions of the assembly are to determine the policies of the organization, appoint the director-general, supervise financial policies, and review and approve the proposed program budget.

The assembly is held annually in Geneva, Switzerland, and is normally three weeks long. However, the conference was shortened to just two days this year.

lc/rt (AP, AFP, Reuters)